The 10 Best California Books of 2023

Credit…Silvia Tack

Believe it or not, the end of 2023 is approaching.

That means we’re entering the season of “best of” lists. Today I’m sharing my own twist on a list: the 10 best California books of the year.

Below are superb works of fiction and nonfiction that The New York Times reviewed this year and are likely to resonate with readers who live in, or just love, California.


“Open Throat,” by Henry Hoke

This book follows an observant cougar who lives in the Los Angeles mountains and offers an indictment of human culture. From our review:

“There is a moment toward the end of ‘Open Throat,’ Henry Hoke’s slim jewel of a novel, where the narrator, a mountain lion living in the desert hills surrounding Los Angeles’s Hollywood sign, falls asleep and dreams of Disneyland. It will be hard for those who haven’t yet read this propulsive novel to understand, but the lion’s waking life at this moment is so precarious that this slippage into pleasant dream left me scared to turn the page.”

“Ripe,” by Sarah Rose Etter

This sharp and absorbing novel follows a tech employee living in San Francisco who writes marketing copy by day, but spends her nights diving deep into the void. From our review:

“Cassie’s conditions might exemplify those of modern American — or perhaps uniquely Silicon Valley — success. She made it out of her ‘dying’ East Coast town, went to college, got decent jobs, moved out West and, as her father puts it, is ‘playing the game.’ For the majority of the book, she works as the head marketing writer for a start-up valued at $16 billion. She’s able to live in a San Francisco apartment that costs $3,000 a month.

But beneath the gleaming surface exists a ‘deafening river of melancholy roaring through the dark red cave of my heart.’”

“Death Valley,” by Melissa Broder

This novel follows a grieving narrator, who travels from Los Angeles to the edge of the Mojave Desert and tries to reconnect to the earth. From our review:

“‘Death Valley’ is a triumph, a ribald prayer for sensuality and grace in the face of profound loss, a hilarious revolt against the aggressive godlessness, dehumanization and fear plaguing our time.”


“Daughter of the Dragon,” by Yunte Huang

This biography of Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American movie star, is intended as a form of reclamation and subversion. From our review:

“Hollywood was obsessed with the exoticism of Chinatown, yet roles for Asian actors were exceedingly few; it’s therefore all the more remarkable that Wong, who was born in her father’s Los Angeles laundry in 1905, was as productive as she was.”

“The Longest Minute,” by Matthew J. Davenport; and “Portal,” by John King

These books cover San Francisco’s resiliency, with one focused on how the city recovered from the 1906 earthquake and fire and the other using the iconic Ferry Building as a way to chart the city’s zigzagging trajectory. From our review:

“San Francisco has become a political hockey puck, slapped around with little regard for its actual qualities. Two very engaging new books attempt to give the city its due, presenting it not as an abstraction but as a place — albeit a very dramatic one, swinging precipitously between crisis and rebirth.”

“A Man of Two Faces,” by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Nguyen, best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Sympathizer,” blends polemic and family history in this fragmentary memoir about growing up in San Jose. From our review:

“In the relative comfort of San Jose, where Nguyen has ‘everything I need but almost nothing I want,’ he learns that the secret to surviving a bifurcated upbringing is … keeping secrets, including his high school girlfriend, J, a Filipina refugee who lives three hours away and drains his comic book collection in long-distance phone bills. ‘In Ba Ma’s house,’ he writes, ‘you are an American spying on them. Outside their house, you are a Vietnamese spying on Americans and their strange ways and customs.’”

“Shaping Surf History,” by Jimmy Metyko

This coffee table book documents a fertile period of surf history through photographs from the California coastline. From our review:

“Hailing from Texas, the photographer may as well have been from Jupiter. But the images herein, ranging from the experimental to the drool-worthy, argue that no one was better poised to cherish Santa Barbara’s wavescape (and its devoted suitors).”

“The Riders Come Out at Night,” by Ali Winston and Darwin BondGraham

This book offers an exhaustive case study of policing in Oakland and tells us why police reform is so difficult across America. From our review:

“By zooming in geographically, but also stretching out their timeline — the town had a racist mayor who unleashed police officers against Chinese immigrants back in 1879 — the authors conjure a sense of chronic tragedy. A culture of corruption and violence keeps flourishing despite repeated good faith efforts to stop the bad apples, who continue to show up, generation after generation, to spoil the barrel.”

“Our Migrant Souls,” by Héctor Tobar

This deeply personal meditation on the Latino experience reflects the author’s years teaching Latino students at U.C. Irvine as well as several decades spent reporting on immigration, culture and Latin America. From our review:

“Tobar is unpreoccupied with settling on a fixed definition of ‘Latino.’ Instead, like a sculptor chipping away at a mass of stone, he is interested in revealing a human shape within it.”

For more:

  • The Times chose 100 notable books of 2023.

A new national study on the mortality risk among homeless people found that a 40-year-old person experiencing homelessness has a similar risk of death as a 60-year-old person with housing.Credit…Mike Kai Chen for The New York Times

The rest of the news

  • A new study finds that nonelderly homeless people are about three and a half times as likely to die in any given year as people with housing are, and those living in California are no exception, The San Francisco Chronicle reports.

Southern California

  • A class-action lawsuit has been filed against CitiBank after it was revealed this month that the company had denied Armenian Americans living near Los Angeles fair access to its credit cards for years, The Los Angeles Times reports.

  • The University of Southern California and the graduate student workers’ union reached a tentative agreement over the weekend, averting a strike that would have begun today, The Los Angeles Times reports.

  • A San Diego man pleaded guilty to falsifying loan applications and obtaining almost $3 million in federal relief funds that were meant to help small businesses during the pandemic, The San Diego Union-Tribune reports.

Central California

  • A magnitude 3.5 earthquake struck early Monday outside of Bakersfield, the U.S. Geological Survey reports. Quakes of that scale are often felt but rarely do much damage.

  • Fresno police officers identified the woman who died after being shot several times and then struck by a car Saturday morning as Adriana Gonzales, 21, The Fresno Bee reports.

Northern California

  • Scientists have discovered a critical stash of carbon off the coast of Northern California, which they say holds vast amounts of potential greenhouse gases, The San Francisco Chronicle reports.

  • A temporary ban on street vending on Mission Street in San Francisco took effect on Monday, The San Francisco Chronicle reports.

  • Sacramento’s city attorney denounced the Sacramento County district attorney’s threat to file criminal charges over the city’s homeless crisis, accusing him of abusing his authority, The Sacramento Bee reports.

Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena.Credit…John Antczak/Associated Press

Where we’re traveling

Today’s tip comes from Suzanne Barber, who lives in Pasadena:

Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to [email protected]. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.

Tell us

Have you seen fall colors in California this year? Send us your best photos at [email protected]. Please include your full name and the city in which you live.

And before you go, some good news

A new community green space opened in Emeryville last month with a name honoring the Ohlone, a group of local Indigenous tribes, and their ties to the land.

The park, on Hubbard Street, sits on what was once the largest shellmound burial in the Bay Area — mounds of earth and organic matter that were built up over thousands of years and served as ceremonial and burial sites by people native to the Bay Area.

It was built into the Oakland Trotting Park racetrack in the late 19th century and later became a paint emulsion factory. The opening of the park this October marked the completion of a yearslong project to redevelop the land into a two-acre community park and open space, complete with a basketball court, public garden and art on display.

Emeryville’s City Council members voted unanimously to name it Huchiun Park, or “Xučyun,” in honor of the land’s Chochenyo name, one of the Ohlone languages, The Mercury News reports.

“When you talk about creating this beautiful, built-community — taking something that was literally toxic to the land and turning it into a space where people can convene, celebrate and have housing — this is such an amazing example of what the potential of California is,” Assemblywoman Mia Bonta told the news outlet.

Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. — Soumya

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword.

Maia Coleman, Briana Scalia and Halina Bennet contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].


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